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Neuroscience at Work

Leveraging Brain Science for Business Success

Why do we behave the way we do? Can we actually change how we usually react?
 

  • You may have noticed that there are times when life seems good, you’re on a roll, and things are getting done. Your behavior is your normal mode – friendly, supportive, purposeful, etc.
  • Then there are other times when your behavior is different—you feel snappy, you want to run away, or you feel stuck. Most of you will have heard of Fight, Flight, or Freeze. These are the only reactions that your brain provides when you are in STRESS.

 

How have we uncovered this and understood not just the fundamentals but the deeper aspects of our behavior? Neuroscience, the study of the brain and nervous system, is not just a field of science; it also holds valuable insights into how our brain works and how we can manage our reactions.

 

In this blog, we’re going to look at how the brain can help improve relationships, boost productivity, shape company culture, make informed hiring and firing decisions, and enhance overall business performance. In this blog, we’ll explore how insights from neuroscience can be practically applied in your business. In a later blog, we’ll dive deeper into how to manage your reactions.

 

Let’s start with six areas where neuroscience presents ideas on how you can improve your business.

Building Stronger Relationships

Neuroscience can shed light on the intricacies of human behavior and emotions. Here’s how it can enhance relationship-building in business:

 

Empathy:

Understanding the neural basis of empathy can help leaders and teams relate to one another better. Empathetic leaders are more likely to foster trust and collaboration. If you believe you’re empathetic, where did that come from? Chances are, you discovered that showing empathy was a great path to getting beyond an upset with your parents or with a friend.

*Empathy: The psychological identification with the emotions, thoughts, or attitudes of another: She put an arm around her friend’s shoulders and stood by her in silent empathy. www.dictionary.com Empathy allows us to get inside the world of another and understand what they are experiencing. Note that this is not the same as sympathy.

 

Effective Communication:

Recognizing how the brain processes information can improve communication. For instance, mirroring body language and using active listening techniques can enhance understanding. For example, if someone is sitting across a table from you and is looking sad, with their hands clasped in their lap, adopt a posture of leaning on the table with your hands clasped, set aside any judgments, and look directly at the person’s face. When they say something, mirror back to them what they said so they know you’re “getting it.”

 

Conflict Resolution:

Neuroscience insights can guide conflict resolution strategies by revealing the brain’s responses to stress. Strategies like active listening and emotional regulation can be employed to de-escalate conflicts. Recognize that you’re being triggered by the situation into Flight or Fight or Freeze. Pause, take a deep breath, and take yourself back to your usual behavior. Listen without judgment, try and understand the concerns and the frustration of the other person, and let them know you hear them. Encourage them to say more until they’re all done. They’ll automatically feel better because they feel “heard”, and the tension will de-escalate.

Enhancing Productivity

Here’s what neuroscience can tell us about human motivation and productivity:

 

Intrinsic Motivation:

“Intrinsic” is the essential nature of a thing, including ourselves. When we understand the brain’s reward system, we can create environments that stimulate intrinsic (internal) motivation for employees. This can boost creativity and innovation. Our reward system is based on wanting to win and needing acknowledgment. If you work with young people, you will experience that they respond really well to being acknowledged for something they’ve done. Better still, if you can create some “game” (look up gamification), you can stimulate increased engagement with a procedure or in striving for results

 

Stress Management:

Neuroscience can inform stress management techniques that improve productivity. Mindfulness practices, for example, can reduce stress by rewiring the brain’s response to pressure. We get stressed when we experience an unmet need – hunger, thirst, not being listened to, or being shouted at. Identify the unmet need and ask for it to be met: “You know, I need to eat/drink. I’m not at my best.” “I’m just asking that you listen to me without interrupting. I’ll be brief, I promise.” “Please don’t shout at me—it makes me feel …”

As much as possible, we want to be operating from our “usual” self, not from our “stressed” self. Why? It gets us better results and makes us feel happier. Try using some techniques to decouple the stress so you can reengage “usual”—try a quick meditation, a breath exercise, or, if you’re hungry, eat something. Share what’s distracting you and making you feel stressed. Let It out, and you’ll start to move back to “usual.”

 

Focus and Attention:

Insights into attention and memory can inform strategies to increase focus. Techniques like time management and the Pomodoro technique* align with the brain’s capacity for sustained attention.

* The Pomodoro Technique is a time management method developed by Francesco Cirillo in the late 1980s.[1] It uses a kitchen timer to break work into intervals, typically 25 minutes in length, separated by short breaks. Each interval is known as a pomodoro, from the Italian word for tomato, after the tomato-shaped kitchen timer Cirillo used as a university student. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pomodoro_Technique

Shaping Company Culture

A company’s culture has a profound impact on its success. Neuroscience can be applied to create a culture that fosters growth and well-being:

 

Trust and Psychological Safety:

Brain studies show that trust and psychological safety are essential for employee engagement. Leaders can create environments that promote these factors, leading to greater loyalty and commitment. How do you create trust and an environment of psychological safety? Firstly, make sure that your company values have some reference to respect for others and talking directly about issues to the person who can take action (that’s shorthand for “don’t gossip.”) Ultimately, gossip destroys reputations. (thehopeline.com/danger-of-gossip). If you are open and honest with people, they will trust you, and they will feel safe.

 

Diversity and Inclusion:

Understanding unconscious bias and how it affects decision-making can help businesses create more inclusive cultures. Training programs can help mitigate bias and encourage diversity. As mentioned above, don’t gossip; be professional, and work out problems with the people who can act and help. If you experience unconscious bias, don’t blame the person—instead, explain why what they said can encourage others to be part of the problem, increasing rather than decreasing the unconscious bias in the company.

Hiring and Firing Decisions

What part does neuroscience play in the hiring and firing processes:

 

Neuro-assessment Tools:

Some companies use neuro-assessment tools to evaluate job candidates. These tools assess cognitive skills and personality traits, providing data-driven insights for hiring decisions. In smaller companies, asking candidates questions about their values, and which of the company’s values resonate with them. We all carry some unconscious bias, so it’s not about trying to hire “perfect: people, but rather trying to avoid hires where the new employee has already displayed their biases in interviews. On firing, use your company values to help you make firing decisions. In the end, it doesn’t matter how competent a person is if they are toxic in the workplace. Fire employees for serious transgressions of company values.

 

Performance Evaluation:

Understanding the neuroscience of learning and skill development can help businesses assess employee performance more accurately. This can inform decisions related to promotions, training, or terminations. As a starting point, employees respond best to feedback given in the moment, whether for excellent performance or below satisfactory. With immediate and relevant feedback, but without “making the employee wrong,” make sure the message resonates and that the employee understands how to improve, if necessary. Ideally, even formal performance evaluations should be done quarterly, with goals set for the next quarter.

Decision-Making

Neuroscience can shed light on the decision-making process, helping leaders make better choices:

 

Emotional Intelligence:

Leaders can leverage insights from emotional intelligence studies to make emotionally informed decisions that resonate with their teams and stakeholders. Make sure you’re clear about the difference between IQ (“the measurement of the brain’s ability to think, problem solve and memory”) and EQ “the measurement of an individual to understand others; how they think, feel, and their personal concerns.”) https://www.thehrdirector.com/features/leadership/importance-eq-business/

 

Behavioral Economics:

Behavioral economics, closely related to neuroscience, explores why people make irrational decisions. Businesses can apply these principles to develop strategies and influence employee and even consumer behavior. In practical terms, if we want to positively improve behavior, for example, in smoking, savings, or healthy eating, companies have tried strategies of awarding a cash price if employees stopped smoking for six months and an additional prize for 12 months (General Electric.)  In another program, the employer created a slow increase in savings for those who signed up and saw the savings rate go from 3.5% to 13.6% over 40 months.

These tactics are called “nudges” (https://hbr.org/2017/10/the-rise-of-behavioral-economics-and-its-influence-on-organizations), and you can apply them to whatever concerns you have about performance for your employees

Employee Well-Being

The well-being of employees is a critical factor in business success. Neuroscience can provide insights into promoting mental health and work-life balance:

 

Stress Reduction:

Mindfulness and meditation practices, informed by neuroscience, can be integrated into wellness programs to reduce stress and improve overall employee well-being. Stress is the primary cause of people not performing optimally, so finding ways to reduce it is a real benefit. Find out if you have an employee who can lead a meditation session for employees each morning, or who is experienced in breath techniques. Organize social events or outings to bring people together—they’ll be good for you too!

 

Work-Life Integration:

Understanding the brain’s need for rest and recovery can lead to policies that support a healthy work-life balance. Performance degrades rapidly if all we do is work. Top business owners consistently have morning practices where they attend to their rest and recovery. Recall things you used to do when you were younger but stopped doing—maybe you can pick that hobby back up. Go for a walk or to the gym in the morning. Then, encourage groups to get out and do leisure activities and to go home on time/not work at the weekend. Their productivity at work will soar.

 

In summary, neuroscience at work is not about turning every business decision into a brain scan but leveraging valuable insights to improve relationships, productivity, culture, hiring and firing, and decision-making. By incorporating neuroscience principles, businesses can create environments that foster employee well-being, innovation, and sustainable growth. As we continue to unravel the mysteries of the brain, its potential to transform the workplace is limitless, making the application of neuroscience a powerful tool for success in business.

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